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Thousands of earthquakes hit Iceland in recent days, officials say an eruption may be imminent

1 month 1 week 1 day ago Thursday, March 04 2021 Mar 4, 2021 March 04, 2021 6:30 AM March 04, 2021 in News
Source: WBRZ
A generic image of Laki or Lakagígar (Craters of Laki), which is a volcanic fissure in the western part of Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland - The Icelandic Meteorological Office reports that around 17,000 earthquakes have hit the southwestern region of Reykjanes throughout the past seven days, during this first week of March 2021.

According to CNN, the largest quake, a magnitude 5.6 on the Richter scale, occurred on the morning of February 24. The news outlet says it was the loudest in a swarm that continues to rattle residents in the nearby capital city of Reykjavík and the municipalities around it, where two-thirds of the Icelandic population lives. Two larger earthquakes -- over magnitude 5.0 -- also hit on February 27 and March 1.

The quakes have caused minimal damage so far, but Iceland's Road and Coastal Administration has reported small cracks in roads in the area and rockfalls on steep slopes near the epicenter of the swarm.

"I have experienced earthquakes before but never so many in a row," Reykjavik resident Auður Alfa Ólafsdóttir told CNN. "It is very unusual to feel the Earth shake 24 hours a day for a whole week. It makes you feel very small and powerless against nature."

In the fishing town of Grindavík, locals express surprise at the many tremors. "I've not experienced anything like this before," says Páll Valur Björnsson, who teaches at the local College of Fisheries and sits as a deputy member of Parliament.

"We are used to it; it started one year ago. But it is much more now -- very unsettling. I'm not afraid but this is uncomfortable. I woke up twice last night because of [tremors]. There was a very big one when I went to sleep, and I woke up with one. It is difficult but you have to learn to live with it," he said.

Iceland is situated on a tectonic plate boundary that continually splits apart, pushing North America and Eurasia away from each other along the line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The majority of seismic activity in this area is only picked up by sensitive scientific equipment. 

Þorvaldur Þórðarson, a professor of volcanology at the University of Iceland, told CNN that concerns about the recent activity are understandable. "Of course it worries people. For this region, this is actually fairly unusual, not because of the type of earthquakes or their intensity, but for their duration. It's been going for more than a week now."

"We are battling with the 'why' at the moment. Why is this happening? It is very likely that we have an intrusion of magma into the [Earth's] crust there. It has definitely moved closer to the surface, but we are trying to figure out if it's moving even closer to it," he explained. With multiple volcanoes in the area, area officials have warned that an eruption could be imminent.

Elísabet Pálmadóttir, a specialist in natural hazards at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told CNN that authorities are bringing surveillance equipment to the area, devices include GPS and earthquake monitors to web cameras and gas detectors.

Pálmadóttir told CNN reporters that she can't recall ever experienced so many earthquakes over such a long period of time. She also said that a more powerful event could be cause for concern, and estimates that the area could experience a magnitude 6 earthquake or above.

"In this particular area, where we've seen activity in the past week, we could experience a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. But we could have a 6.5 to the east of the area, east of the Kleifarvatn Lake," she says.

CNN reports that no towns appear to be at risk from lava flows in the event of a volcanic eruption, according to the latest modeling by the University of Iceland's Volcanology and Natural Hazard Group, which released maps of potential flows on Wednesday.

"Based on the current model, no major town is in harm's way," volcanologist Ármann Höskuldsson told CNN, adding that Keflavík International Airport -- one of the most direct connections between Iceland and the rest of the world — would also be spared.

But locals should be aware of the fact that the main road connecting the airport to the capital, Reykjavík, may be impacted, as could some powerlines, Höskuldsson added.

Pálmadóttir also notes that such models fail to take into account the potential of dangerous gases that could be emitted from a volcanic eruption.

According to CNN, the specter of a major eruption recalls the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, which caused one of the world's largest air-traffic shutdowns since World War II. But Pálmadóttir says a similar ash plume would be unlikely in the current situation.

Þórðarson adds that "the magma composition here is very different, the intensity of explosive activity would be significantly less."

On Wednesday afternoon, a tremor close to the Keilir volcano, just 20 miles south of the capital, moved authorities to ban traffic in the area. On its webpage, the Icelandic MET Office notes that similar activity has previously preceded eruptions.

Víðir Reynisson, Chief Superintendent at Iceland's Department for Civil Protection and Emergency Management, told a news conference on Wednesday that an eruption was "more likely than not" within the next few hours, CNN reports.

In the last 24 hours, the large earthquakes felt the previous days have subsided, but the lull may not last for long. "It's definitely not over," says Pálmadóttir.

Should a major eruption occur, it would be the first in the area since the 12th century.

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